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Turn Their Gadgets Against Them

Every bad guy has a cell phone and a computer, and the savvy investigator can use the evidence left on them to close cases.

February 01, 2009  |  by David Spraggs

The New Pawn Shops

Starting in the late 1990s, I spent four years in our property crimes unit. Back then when I looked for stolen property, I made weekly runs to local pawn shops in and around our city. I also searched the area flea markets.

How times have changed. Some crooks still fence their stolen property the old-fashioned way, but our property crimes detectives seem to be spending just as much time searching on their computer these days as they do pounding the pavement.

Ebay and Craigslist are two of the largest Websites out there that allow individuals to sell their personal property. These are also the first two sites our detectives check when trying to track down stolen property.

In order to sell on Ebay (, the seller must be registered. Still, we've seen numerous stolen items show up on Ebay. We've also had crooks take stolen property to stores like Sell It on Ebay. These businesses allow individuals to drop off the items they want to sell and the store takes care of the rest. The store keeps a percentage of the sale price and sends the rest of the money to the seller.

Craigslist ( is one of the largest, if not the largest, online classified advertising sites on the Web. It's broken down by region or city. The advantage of Craigslist for thieves is that there's less of a paper trail than selling items on Ebay. The down side for crooks is that these transactions generally take place in person.

A crook only has to post the stolen item for sale on Craigslist. A potential buyer contacts the seller via e-mail. The two parties then agree on the specific method of purchase.

Many property crime victims are even taking an active role in looking for their stolen property. I work in a city with a large university; we have a lot of property crime involving bicycles and laptop computers. And our agency has actually had victims locate their stolen merchandise online even before the case has been assigned to a detective.

From this point, the detective can pose as a potential buyer and set up a meeting with the seller. If things go right we can recover the property and make an arrest at the same time.

Note: Websites like Craigslist also offer a new way for prostitutes to solicit their services. A lot of vice units are now routinely checking these classified ads when working prostitution cases.

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